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Despite challenges, Lake Ontario fisheries doing very well

Steve LaPan, manager of Lake Ontario fisheries for New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), says invasive species are a problem.

The Asian carp is at the doorstep of Lake Michigan, "monster weeds" are choking the Finger Lakes and invasive mussels continue to threaten the Great Lakes. LaPan says invasives remain his agency's "greatest concern." 

But despite such challenges, fishing on Lake Ontario has never been better.

"Fishing has been fabulous. No uncertain terms," says LaPan. "Just some of the best trout and salmon fishing since the inception of the stocking program in the 1960s."

If there was a takeaway Tuesday night's "State of Lake Ontario" meeting, it was this: Things are looking up for the fisheries of Lake Ontario.

"In some ways it's a bit of an enigma," LaPan says.

Angling's impact

LaPan and other presenters walked through highlights of the DEC's 2011 Lake Ontario Fisheries Program [PDF] at RIT's Ingle Auditorium.

About 100 sport fisherman showed up. They were there to hear about the minutiae of managing the lake's fish population. (Topics on the agenda ranged from "Preyfish assessments" to the results of the latest "Tributary creel survey.")

One such fisherman was Dave Chilson of Empire State Lake Ontario Promotions.

"The salmon that we catch in our tournaments are bigger than [those in] some of the tournaments in Alaska," Chilson says.

Chilson's company runs a fishing competition on Lake Ontario. Grand prizes of up to $20,000 draw as many as 6,000 fishermen to the summer's biggest event, according to Chilson. He says fishing on Lake Ontario is one of the region's unheralded gems.

"People will be just going by one of the weigh-ins or something, and they'll see these fish and they'll go, 'Oh my God, where'd you catch those?' " Chilson says. "It's like, 'They're in Lake Ontario.' It's amazing."

The DEC measures fishing activity in "angler hours." One guy fishing for one hour equals one angler hour. Four guys fishing for one hour equals four angler hours.

For the two-and-a-half month salmon season last fall, Lake Ontario and it's major tributaries saw nearly 2 million angler hours, according to the DEC's Steve LaPan.

"It adds up"

All that fishing means economic impact - with anglers spending dough on gear, travel and lodging to indulge their favorite hobby.

"It adds up," says LaPan. "It's a significant economic driver."

The DEC estimates that fishing on Lake Ontario and its major tributaries generates more than $112 million in economic activity each year.

While the economic impact on lakefront communities is substantive, that $112 million figure pales in comparison with the leisure powerhouse that is golf: The purchase of golf supplies alone in New York State accounts for $474.4 million of direct economic impact, according to a 2009 industry study [PDF].

Still, LaPan says fisherman are no doubt good for the economy.

"They spend money," LaPan says. "Not only gasoline, but hotel rooms; they might hire a charter captain; they buy bait, tackle, fishing poles and things like that."

For the couple of million dollars it costs to stock the lake every year, LaPan says $112 million is a great return on investment.

WXXI/Finger Lakes reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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